Text: Luke 13:1-9
This has been a week! A week ago I advised you about washing hands and avoiding hand-to-hand contact. I said that the Session would meet on Tuesday to talk about sensible precautions related to COVID-19, and they did. And the insert you have today is what came of that meeting. In summary, we decided to significantly MODIFY all meetings and practices to ensure that we reduced and minimized risk. We committed and continue committing to close MONITORING of all health warnings and developments, ready to take further precautions as needed. And we will be diligent about COMMUNICATING with you.
That monitoring this past week has led the Session to further action as of this morning. This will be our last in-person gathering for worship until further notice. I would love to think we would be able to be back together for Holy Week and Easter, but we will have to see. We will use the same monitoring and communication process to make that decision as we have this past week and today.
While we do want to speak to logistics and take advantage of being together this morning for some key communications, I also want to share God’s Word with you. This might have been one of those days when I would have changed my previously selected text to choose something to fit the extraordinary situation of the day. But as God would have it, I think the text I chose some 6-8 weeks ago is right on target. So let’s look at that together.
In Luke 13 we read of two calamities of Jesus day and we have the opportunity to hear Jesus’ response to them. Wow – could this text be any more on point? I want to look at each calamity and how Jesus responded, and then at a parable he told immediately afterwards.
Jesus had been teaching the crowds and we read that some present came and reported to him about Pilate having killed some Galileans, presumably while making their Passover sacrifices. Most people typically only know of Pilate’s role in the trial of Jesus when he examined the claims made against Jesus. But we see here that Pilate is no friend of the Jews. Galilee was the northern, rural part of the country – where Jesus was from and where he conducted much of his ministry. Pilate was the Roman governor over Judea, and had the Roman army to back him up. We don’t know any more about this execution of Galilean Jews than this obscure reference, but it’s enough for us to see the way Jesus responds.
He responds, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate?” It’s the same kind of perspective that Jesus addressed when his disciples asked him about the blind man, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born this way?” One of our quick go-to explanations of tragedy is that someone did something wrong; someone deserved it. That’s part of what can fuel racist fears and responses to Chinese or Asian people around COVID-19. Or it can fuel responses like some televangelists who might see this as God’s judgment on the world. But like the rain falling on the just and the unjust, this virus will not have regard for someone’s godliness.
Jesus offers this somewhat cryptic conclusion: “I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” I’m going to come back to that.
Jesus goes on to add another story of calamity – also obscure to us: “Do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem?” Again, when that natural disaster happened, were they somehow deserving of that?
This particular virus is more dangerous and deadly to older adults and to those with existing health conditions. Are they somehow less worthy of life than the young or the healthy? It’s easy to become self-focused: “I’m not at risk… I don’t need to pay that much attention to this” unless you ARE one of those at risk. Then it gets scary pretty quick.
Jesus offered the same cryptic response: “I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” I’m still going to come back to that.
Jesus also taught love of neighbor. So not only are those at greater risk with this virus no more or less sinful or deserving, but all of us need to treat those at risk as our neighbor… as ourselves. If you are at risk, I need to be as concerned about that as you are. That’s why a person who is at low risk from the virus needs to practice good hygiene and social distancing… so that they don’t put someone who is at risk in harm’s way.
While it may seem upside-down, not coming to church for a while may be the best way to be the church and follow Jesus as we love each other and the community in which we live.
Failing Fig Tree
Finally, Jesus tells a parable which helps explain his two previous cryptic responses. What does he mean by “No, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish?” The story is that a man has a fig tree which had been planted. For three years it has not borne any fruit so he tells the vineyard-keeper to cut it down. The vineyard-keeper says that he will dig around it and put in fertilizer, so give it one more year. But then, if it still doesn’t bear fruit, cut it down.
I believe there are two takeaways from this parable. One is that, like trees, human beings are made to bear fruit. God’s desire is for us to know Him, follow Him, and glorify Him in the world. That’s our purpose here. Secondly, most people at some point in life will face a “wake-up call” – portrayed in the parable by the fertilizing (I thought by the threat of being cut down, but on reflection, I think the crisis is the fertilizer!). Something like this virus, or a heart attack, or a car accident, or even a particularly thoughtful moment can be a wake-up call. This wake-up call is another way of talking about turning toward God instead of away; it is another way to describe repentance. Jeus says to do it – repent… wake up – or perish. He doesn’t mean die right now, but continue turned away from God, which is the ultimate in perishing. While this is not Jesus at his most warm and inviting, it IS an invitation combined with a stern warning.
So the wake-up call – the question – is not, “Do you deserve this or not?” The question is “How are you going to respond to this crisis?” Practically AND spiritually it can cut you down or it can be the fertilizer that leads to amazing fruit. Even in the extreme, if it were to cost you your life, it is an opportunity to ask the deep questions, consider God’s role in your life, and how you will respond. For all of us, it presents the opportunity to duck and cover or to bear fruit that will honor God.
So what might that fruit look like, especially if we all have to be more isolated for a while? I’ll simply offer a few suggestions in hopes that they will prompt creative alternatives and other ideas (which I’d like to hear about!).
1. Prayer – Surely if there were ever a time for intensified prayer this is it! We need to pray for those who are at-risk: older adults, those with chronic illness or other underlying issues, those with accessibility issues of all kinds. We need to pray for the significant economic disruption which, in many cases, may mean a loss of critical income for an extended period of time. We need to pray for opportunities for connection and caring for others. And we need to pray for this wake-up call… that human life is fragile, our structures and systems are fragile and interdependent, our ultimate need is more than anything this world can offer. May this be a time to not only care for each other well, but to turn toward God.
COVID Challenge #1: Take time to pray each day. Pray specifically for some of the needs I have mentioned. Go through the church directory or through the names of the people who live around you. Pray specifically for protection, for re-kindled or deepened faith, for unknown needs.
2. Human Contact – One of the key concepts to combat the rapid spread of the virus is “social distancing” or, in some cases of infection, “social isolation.” And we will surely rely more on our technology and “virtual interactions” for information. Let us also use them for human connection. And let us not forget that old human invention, the telephone!
COVID Challenge #2: Connect with at least one person every day. Talk to them on the phone. Check on a neighbor; do they need groceries if they are at-risk? Facetime with someone so you can see their expression. I’m hoping even if we aren’t meeting face to face that each week I can share some video greetings during the online worship or recording. We’ll be sharing some resources for conference calls or video for groups that want to continue meeting or start new connections. There are even some fun online group games for game night!
3. Care of those at-risk (members and beyond) – We have a particular opportunity to care for those who are most at-risk. I was so pleased that my neighborhood association sent out an e-mail from a group offering to get groceries for anyone who might be more at risk for going out. Surely the church can do this as well – both for each other and for our own neighbors. Are you able to cook a simple meal or grocery shop for someone? We’ll be organizing through our deacons for some in house ministries like this, but I’d also encourage you to be proactive in your own neighborhoods. This could be the most outreach we’ve done in some time! There are other ways to care. I realize that some of our oldest members who should not come to church also struggle the most with technology. If they have a computer, would you be willing to offer a simple tutorial on how to participate in our streamed worship service, find our website for updates, and a few other simple means of connecting?
COVID Challenge #3: Cook an extra meal for someone who needs it once a week. Identify and offer yourself as a “tech helper.”
4. Economic Needs – The economic implications of the virus are far-reaching. And it’s not just plunging numbers on Wall Street. I will admit to wondering if church giving will plummet because we aren’t meeting regularly. Your own income may take a hit. People in nearly every industry, white and blue collar will be affected. Some will be on leave; some will be unpaid. Retirement savings will be severely devalued for the immediate future. While we can’t solve all of that, each of us can tackle one or two small situations a week. Include “open eyes and a generous heart” in your prayers and see where the Lord leads you.
COVID Challenge #4: Look for and address one or two small economic challenges of others each week. Going out for a meal? Consider an extra tip for a server who may only see one-fifth of the regular patronage. Hear about someone who has been laid off or had significantly reduced hours? Consider a gift card or making a meal. We’ll try to keep some simple and important opportunities before you in the coming weeks.
It’s impossible to cover all the waterfront with the significant changes we are making this week. At the heart of Jesus words and parable this morning are this: don’t waste an opportunity God is giving you to bring him glory and love other people!
And finally, be reminded of this: God sees you, God knows you, God loves you, and God holds you in the power of His hand. We are God’s church together wherever we are because God’s Holy Spirit binds us together. I think God is going to do something extraordinary with us and through us, for His glory! Amen.
Some Music Used
- Hear the Call of the Kingdom (Getty/Townend)
- Here is Love (Lowry/Rees)
- Just As I Am (WOODWORTH)
- There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy (adap. VanderHeide)
- CHORAL BENEDICTION: O Christ, Surround Me (arr. Sims)